If you know me, you know that I’ll never shy away from reviewing a movie. I don’t consider myself a genius of any sort and I don’t think I know all there is to know in the world. But if there’s one thing I know for certain I can talk about, it is film. The reason I bring this up is because Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), is a politically charged movie if I’ve ever seen one. The movie is as heartbreaking and eye-opening as it is darkly funny. This review will touch on some of those points, but if you have seen the movie, there are points I will gloss over or briefly acknowledge because I don’t want to provide you with a long tirade about social injustice and today’s political climate. I’m a straight white middle class male – as far as I’m concerned, my opinion on politics and $1.59 will get you a small black coffee at Dunkin Donuts. I review and critique films and that is the service I am here to provide for you. So if you’re looking for a review that gathers up the most “Woke Cards,” you’re going to need to look somewhere else.
Three Billboards comes from the mind of director Martin McDonagh – of In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) fame – and stars an uncompromising Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother who has it out for the police department of Ebbing, Missouri after her daughter is raped and murdered. Mildred rents out the three billboards on a quiet road that only police patrol every now and then to embarrass them for the lack of results/arrests following her daughter’s untimely death seven months prior – since, according to Mildred, cops are “too busy torturing black folks.” On the other end of the spectrum is Ebbing police deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is as horrendous as he is moronic. Rockwell plays this part stupendously and somehow finds a balance between human and deplorable. Running Ebbing’s police department is Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who doesn’t like to be publicly mocked by his citizens but tries to work with Mildred the best he can – much to no avail. Willoughby and Mildred play a game of cat and mouse with each other as the former tries everything he can to get the billboards taken down and the latter holds her ground with pure tenacity. Her tenacity gets the attention of TV news outlets who claim that the case is closed. Mildred ruthlessly retorts from her car, “This is just getting started – why don’t you put that on your Good Morning, f*cking Missouri f*cking wakeup broadcast, b*tch.” That’s just a taste of the crass language riddled throughout the movie.
Vehemently written and directed by McDonagh, the film is a vehicle for the hellfire that Mildred brings throughout the two hour run-time. While a lot of the cussing and outright offensive dialogue can be a turnoff for some viewers, Frances McDormand evokes sympathy for her character as well. She takes no prisoners, but McDormand’s subtleties speak volumes about Mildred’s rage and confusion towards the world. Through her acting and McDonagh’s writing/direction, the film effortlessly pivots from churlish to sorrowful. That’s not to say that the other performances aren’t first-rate as well; not just Harrelson and Rockwell, but Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son embodies the ripple effect of Mildred’s decisions and the toll they take on their family. Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s friend James shines as well – despite his Missouri accent that I couldn’t grasp because my default for Dinklage is Tyrion Lannister.
There are a lot of themes and messages that Three Billboards manages to cover, and they all center on this idea of helplessness and furiosity that has certainly swept Trump’s America. Much like the political climate today, there are absolutely no easy answers and McDonagh showcases that with the police’s relationships with the townsfolk. Cops feel a need to protect their fraternity, even if that fraternity throws citizens out of windows and starts bar fights to “keep [locals] in check.” In my absolute favorite scene of the movie, Mildred puts it bluntly, “If you’re part of the gang, you’re culpable.” Sheriff Willoughby may see Deputy Dixon as more than ‘just’ a drunk racist and the textbook definition of abusive power, but to Mildred and the rest of us, Dixon is a pig and Willoughby is an enabler. We see it far too much in media where those who are clearly wrong are defended by their “brethren.” The only way to move forward, together, is to hold violators accountable for their actions – despite any pre-existing relationships between those who hold power and those who abuse it. Your buddy might have bought you that beer or lent you that dollar, but defending them after they do something wrong will only result in the same wrong happening again and again.
While McDonagh certainly writes these characters as backwards and irredeemable, he manages to instill them with a tenderness – whether it’s Willoughby’s health and how it affects his family or Dixon’s momma’s-boy tendencies. McDonagh doesn’t deliver a pat-on-the-back resolution for everyone, but instead leaves it open for audiences to interpret these characters and their flaws how they see fit. One could argue Dixon is irredeemable (I certainly feel that way); but the same can be said for Mildred and the hell she puts her son through after the horrific act of violence that already devastated their shattered family. Even MIldred’s abusive ex-husband garners some sympathy when he reveals how the sight of her billboards reminds him everyday of their daughter. Just like life itself, there are no easy answers and McDonagh has no clear-cut heroes or villains.
As loud and crude as the movie can be with its choice of language, it is an overall quiet movie. It takes place in a small town with small-town-people. There are no sweeping landscapes and the characters don’t necessarily have cut-and-dry takeaways once the credits roll. Carter Burwell perfectly encapsulates the somber rage of the movie without bashing you over the head with drums and melodramatic riffs, a la Gone with the Wind (1939) as Vivien Leigh cries out for Clark Gable. Every talent in this film gives top-tier performances for their careers and while writer/director McDonagh has a short list of entries in his filmography, this will certainly shine for years to come.
If you can traverse the outright racist and cruel dialogue, there is a story here about morality and what it means to be angry, confused, lonely, considerate, and above all, human. Frances McDormand gives her best performance since Fargo (1996) and the remainder of the cast integrate outstandingly into the world McDonagh writes and directs. Oscar season is upon us, and I expect Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to be in talks.